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Archive for January, 2012

Those Foreigners!

January 28, 2012 Leave a comment

A current debate here in New Zealand involves foreign ownership of our land and other assets. In reality it isn’t a “current” debate because it is something which has never really gone away. Foreign ownership of key assets has been a point of contention especially since the economic revolution of 1984 when New Zealand started the privatisation process.

The two sides of the debate both have good points. Favouring it is the idea that foreign ownership brings in foreign investment and expertise. Against it is the idea that foreign ownership means lack of control and loss of income as profits go to overseas owners.

As you will probably have guessed, I am generally against the idea. In fact I am against the idea of even local private ownership of key assets. I’m not going to go to an extreme communist or socialist position and say the state should own and manage everything, but I would like to see the basics, such as electricity, communications, health, and education, managed by a central non-profit driven organisation, maybe something like the state owned enterprise system we have now (which I realise must return a profit but actually shouldn’t need to).

Private companies, in areas such as retailing, could build on top of these knowing that the basics are safely in local control and being run for the greater good of the community rather than for pure profit.

A current example of the ownership debate is over the sale of some significant dairy farms to Chinese investors. The majority of New Zealanders (according to surveys) don’t want these sales to proceed. Whether this is specifically because the buyers are Chinese or whether the same would apply to Australians or Americans (for example) is unclear. I suspect the degree of resistance would depend on the country involved but I have no supporting evidence for this.

The prime minister has indicated he wants the sales to proceed and has defended this with two points. The first is that opposing these sales is illegal and the second is that the previous Labour lead government were also responsible for land sales.

On the first point I would say that it is irrelevant. It is up to the government to set the laws for the greatest good of the country. That doesn’t seem to be an issue when it comes to creating new laws to favour big corporations and disadvantage workers so why should it be in this instance?

On the second point I would say, yes the previous government did many things that we disagree with. Do two wrongs make a right? And I’ve never heard the PM justify actions (or lack of action) based on what his opponents did anyway. Does that really make any political sense?

So really it gets back to ideology again. The PM and his government are dogmatically dedicated to free markets, laissez-faire economics, and all the other standard right wing methodology. The fact that these have so often failed in the past and that they make no sense when examined logically is of no interest to them at all because, like all ideologues, the facts (while of a certain academic interest) are not part of the decision making process.

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MegaUpload

January 23, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m not a great fan of draconian laws intended to strengthen copyright restrictions and to combat piracy. I think it’s important that people should be rewarded for their creative work, but I don’t think that’s what so-called intellectual property protection, copyright enforcement, or anti-piracy laws are really all about. What they are primarily about is protecting the immoral and antiquated business model which media (movies, music, books, etc) companies currently enjoy.

The greatest part of the price the consumer pays for these items goes to individuals and companies other than the artists who originally created the work. In many cases the actual creator could do a lot better if they could bypass the publisher or distributor. And that’s what the internet allows which is why these corporations are so enthusiastic about shutting it down.

I recently saw a graphic which divided up where the money goes from the price we pay for a CD. It showed the record company making about 70%, the artist about 1% and the producer, manager, and studio, etc making the rest. I suspect this isn’t accurate but according to other sources the artist gets at most about 16%.

So yet again we have a case of worthless parasites (business people, lawyers, accountants) exploiting both the artists and the consumer (you and me) so you can see why some people feel justified in bypassing the corrupt system and acquiring their music and movies by other means.

I don’t support piracy in most cases but I would rather have piracy than restrictive laws which cripple the freedom of the internet. So if I was a person charged with enforcing the law I would ignore most of what currently goes on but I wouldn’t extend that to people who are professional pirates.

I’m usually hesitant to criticise sites which encourage file sharing, but the alleged piracy site, MegaUpload, which has recently been raided by the New Zealand police, is an interesting case. The rather suspicious seeming founder of the site, Kim Dotcom, was allowed into New Zealand despite his rather dubious background. That was an interesting decision and there are now allegations he “bought” his way into the country – something which seems entirely possible.

I think everyone agrees that swapping of copyright material does happen at this site but that doesn’t mean the owners are responsible for that activity and it doesn’t mean that they technically broke any laws. After all, whether something is immoral or ethical has little to do with whether it is legal or not.

There is also the consideration that Dotcom has made a fortune from this site plus his mansion contained many weapons: both legal and illegal. The police assault on the place, with a helicopter and armed defenders, did seem a bit over the top though. Are there not more important crime-related problems we can spend this sort of money on?

Another interesting event related to this whole sorry story is the attacks by the “Anonymous” movement who retaliated against the organisations who originated the charges by attacking several sites, including the Universal Music Group and the US Justice Department.

Some people have labelled Anonymous as terrorists, criminals, or hackers. Well according to some definitions they are, but they could also be labelled as activists who are doing what they think is right. Sure, they are using illegal tactics but when the laws exist almost solely for the benefit of big corporations who can blame them? Again, I don’t want to see laws broken without good cause but at the same time people must do what they think is right.

The internet is currently under attack. Sure, in some ways it is the “wild west” but do we really want it subdued and turned into yet another tool for making the corporations even richer and more powerful? If a corporation can use the internet in a positive way then that’s fine. I buy stuff at the iTunes and app stores because they work well, have reasonable prices, and return most of what I pay to the actual developer (70% to the developers of iPhone apps). That’s reasonable and if the traditional media companies gave us what we wanted at a fair price I think people would avoid piracy. But they’re too ignorant and arrogant to do that. Who are the real criminals here?

A Few Days in Auckland

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

As I write this I am flying at about 10,000 meters on my way to Auckland (there‚Äôs my traditional opening for travel related blog entries, although the destination is not always Auckland of course). Yes, I have been back at work for a total of two days and I am away again already. Well, unfortunately, that isn’t quite true. The fact is that I am spending the next three days in Auckland doing some work on the computers at the Auckland Centre of the University of Otago, so it’s still work I’m afraid.

Interestingly I have spent a lot less time in New Zealand’s main city than I have in some similar places in other countries. For example, since I spent any time in Auckland last I have been to Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney (several times), and San Francisco. I hope that I might have a few hours to look around between the time time spent sorting out computer issues, but that will have to wait to see just how dire the problems actually are!

It sounds sort of unpatriotic but I can’t see a lot of point in spending time in Auckland because anything it has Sydney also has, but more. And the travel time and cost to get to Sydney isn’t that much greater. But they say a change is as good as a holiday and Auckland’s weather has finally improved so it should be quite pleasant.

On the subject of the weather, I will be in a good position on that front during my visit. Generally our friends from the more northern parts of New Zealand like to make subtle (and not so subtle) comments regarding the superiority of their weather in comparison to ours near the more southern, cooler part of the country. But this year the south has got great weather over the holiday period so I can reverse the trend on them this time.

This second part of the entry is being typed from my hotel room on the second day of my visit. There has certainly been plenty to do here and I could probably stay a week to get everything sorted out properly but instead it has turned into a frenetic burst of activity to get as much done as possible.

I have also had a chance after work to have a bit of a walk around the city and down to the harbour and I have actually enjoyed being here more than I thought, although I still think Sydney’s better!

I’m flying out early tomorrow afternoon so I have about 3 hours in the morning to get a few tasks finished. I also hope I have configured enough remote access services so that I can administer some of the servers, computers, and other devices by “remote control” from back in Dunedin. Or maybe I should avoid that technique and aim for another trip here in the future!

One More Thing

January 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Today I finished the (600 page) biography of Steve Jobs. I should have spent more time working on my programming projects but I found the book so well written and so full of interesting details that I couldn’t stop reading it. And an ironic aspect of this was that it was a real, paper book. This is the first “real” book I have read for a while. Most of my reading now is in the form of audio books on my iPhone and eBooks on my iPad (two of Steve Jobs’ last great creations).

Most people agree that Jobs was a genius. He wasn’t a genius in the same way that Einstein was – having exceptional intelligence – but he had a unique combination of artistic and engineering skill, amazing intuition about how his devices should work, and an unstoppable ambition to make Apple the greatest technology company ever.

His professional life seemed to have two stages: the early years which were full of disasters, ridiculous fiascos, and crazy decisions which made Apple a huge success story and then almost destroyed it a few years later; and the later years when he returned to Apple when the company just produced one exceptional product after another: the iMac, Mac OS X, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, the iTunes store, and the Apple stores.

How did he do it? I don’t know, but there were elements of genius, elements of luck, and maybe most important: elements of pure determination and persistence. Apple became the world’s most important and biggest (by some measures) technology company under his leadership. Could anyone else have done it? I doubt it. Will Apple be able to continue succeeding now that Jobs is gone? Only if they remember the lessons he has given them.

There was one big reason Apple did so well when other great technology companies gradually sunk into oblivion (I’m thinking about HP, IBM, Microsoft, and RIM, but I’m sure there are many others). That reason was that Apple did not follow the standard corporate business model. It was better than that.

I guess the number one edict of the standard model is: profits first. Given the huge profits Apple makes you might think that philosophy applies there too, but I don’t think it does. Jobs himself said so and I think his actions showed that. Jobs’ philosophy was “products first”. He created products people wanted and were prepared to pay for. Because of the success of the products, profit naturally followed.

Another unusual aspect of Apple’s strategy was that it didn’t give its customers what they asked for. Jobs said that if Henry Ford had given his customers what they asked for he would have given them a a faster horse, instead he gave them what they really wanted (even though they didn’t know it). Of course it’s easy to create something you think people might want but only Jobs has consistently created new products which genuinely are so highly loved by their users.

Apple does no product testing, it does no focus groups, it doesn’t do PowerPoint presentations, and it’s very suspicious of the advice and opinions of experts in business, management and marketing. Many of these are contrary to “best practice” and that’s why other companies don’t succeed like Apple does: they just follow the crowd. And many of them have the audacity to claim they are innovators or entrepreneurs. What a joke!

For Apple to continue to succeed it must continue valuing the opinion of the engineers and artists (people like Jony Ive) who have the real talent. The CEO is currently Tim Cook who has a degree in industrial engineering (that has to be good) and an MBA (that is very, very bad). Let’s just hope he forgets all the crap he learnt when he did that MBA!

Thank You Hitch

January 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Last year two people I really admired died. They were Apple founder and technology leader, Steve Jobs, and well-known essayist and political commentator, Christopher Hitchens. Both had been diagnosed with cancer and were not expected to live long but their death was still a bit of a shock.

I’m not pretending these people were perfect because they clearly weren’t. Steve Jobs really was often totally unreasonable and arrogant. Hitchens had some odd political views which many people would disagree with. But they were both also geniuses and that makes it easier to overlook their deficiencies.

I’ve already talked about Steve Jobs (in an entry titled “Think Different” on 2011-10-07) so this time I should say something about “The Hitch”. If you have never experienced Hitchens speaking search for a video of him on YouTube and you will see what I mean. He generally destroys those who dare to debate him with a combination of excellent recall of information and vicious wit (some titles include “Hitchens vs God (god loses by the way)”, “Al Sharpton Gets Hitchslapped”, “Christopher Hitchens Destroys Biblical miracle”, and “A Big HitchSlap!”). His victims are often described as being “Hitch slapped”!

In this entry I want to discuss some of his best quotes. As I have said before, quotes don’t necessarily mean much but they are often a good starting point for discussion and sometimes a concise description of a philosophical position.

My first quote is this short and simple one: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

That is a very compact definition of many skeptics’ views and I think it’s true. Anyone who has a theory based on no evidence can have that theory rejected without the need to present evidence against it, because a theory with no evidence isn’t a theory, it’s an opinion. So anyone who believes something “on faith” can never have that belief taken seriously simply because there’s just no need to, it’s simply irrelevant.

Here’s another: “The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.”

So not only should the religious faithful not be taken seriously but they are also infantile and their way of thinking belongs in the past. Again I agree: one of my objections to religion is that it’s embarrassing. People who really believe the world is 6000 years old and that those who don’t believe the same thing as them are evil are stupid and embarrassing to our species.

Finally here is the ultimate quote (of life, the universe, and everything): “Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”

I will analyse this point by point. First: “Beware the irrational, however seductive.” Many religious fundamentalists ask me why I won’t believe what they do because if I did I would get eternal life. That idea is irrational but the idea of banishing death is certainly seductive. But believing something doesn’t make it true. If I believed in Santa should I expect lots of expensive gifts next Christmas? Believing something doesn’t make it true, it just makes the believer deluded.

Next: “Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others.” We should not enslave ourselves to any god, real or imagined. If a god actually existed and required humans to fully submit to his will I still wouldn’t be interested in worshipping him. The poor Christians who let their imaginary god and their churches think for them are truly pitiful.

Then: “Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish.” I think many people in the skeptical and atheist communities have been too “nice” in the past. They have been so careful when discussing their views that they have failed to say what they really believe. The new atheists, including Hitchens, have been far more open in what they say and this has, of course, lead to conflict.

I’m occasionally accused of being arrogant myself! I remember on one occasion discussing religion with an Anglican minister and being accused of being arrogant simply because I didn’t believe the same thing he did. I think we need to say what we really think without any regard for how it will be perceived – at least in most situations although I admit sometimes a more subtle strategy might be more effective.

Then: “Picture all experts as if they were mammals.” That one short sentence is important but can be easily misused. All experts are prone to errors. But this shouldn’t be extended and used as an excuse to reject facts. Even though the experts who support evolution and climate change are mammals they should still be believed because those mammals also have plenty of facts on their side!

Then: “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.” We can’t all spend our lives protesting or occupying Wall Street or being arrested over environmental activism but we should do what we can. We should always be prepared to do what’s right because there’s plenty of unfairness and stupidity out there.

Then: “Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.” I love arguing (or to put it more politely debating) with people over the big issues even though many people think it’s a waste of time. But I agree that argument is good for it’s own sake, as long as it is about things that really matter.

Then: “Suspect your own motives, and all excuses.” If everyone followed this one rule most of the world’s problems would be solved. I so often see people criticise others for doing exactly what they do. And yes, I know I probably do this myself occasionally and I am aware of which of my beliefs are weakest. One of the reason I engage in debates is to test them and I have changed my mind on some subjects in the past – a phenomenon I have never seen in a fundamentalist of conservative.

Finally: “Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.” We do live in connected social communities and we do need to consider other people in how we live but in the end we need to do what we think is personally right, not what anyone else tells us.

That’s it. One of the greatest quotes of all time, in my opinion. I think anyone who follows the deeper meaning behind this will be a good and worthwhile person. Thank you Hitch.

Fiordland Adventures

January 1, 2012 Leave a comment

As I write this blog entry I am returning from a few days in Te Anau. For those of you not familiar with New Zealand, it is a small town on the eastern edge of Fiordland National Park in southern New Zealand. Fiordland is well known for its wet weather, and is mostly covered with rain forest, but on this occasion the weather has been quite brilliant (it is mid summer in the southern hemisphere of course) which is particularly gratifying considering the poor weather in the rest of the country.

Fiordland is mostly wilderness and covered with dense forest and it has some of New Zealand’s best walking tracks, including the Milford and Kepler tracks. We aren’t into serious tramping but we did do a few shorter walks along these tracks and I got a few photos which I will post on the relevant sections of my web site when I get the chance.

The main walk involved a bus trip from Te Anau to a small harbour half way up the lake, followed by a boat trip to the head of the lake where the Milford Track begins. The track is about 50 kilometers long and usually takes 3 days to complete but we just walked a couple of hours up the valley and didn’t get as far as the big climb up to the pass and out to Milford Sound on the other side.

I walked the whole track many (and I mean many, like about 40) years ago but it is hard to remember what the experience was like so it was good to have a small reminder of it. Of course, I would have loved to have got up the pass for the awesome views and gone down to Sutherland Falls on the other side (one of the tallest waterfalls in the world) but that will have to wait for another occasion.

The main purpose of the visit was to catch up with the rest of the family and to celebrate my brother’s 50th birthday. So we had 18 family members for meals and other events including a rather pleasant al fresco dinner at an Italian restaurant where we enjoyed some good New Zealand wines in the sunshine until quite late.

I can write this blog entry now instead of driving like I usually would because my daughter is driving. That has turned out to be quite useful and she is not too bad a driver. Good enough anyway that I feel reasonably secure sitting in the back typing on my iPad.

Yes, I took my iPad on holiday with me but it does get worse because I also took my iPhone and laptop, plus we had another iPhone, two other iPads and two other laptops there as well. I don’t think it’s bad using technology like that as long as it doesn’t keep you too much out of the sun enjoying the great outdoors. And knowing Fiordland it could just as easily have rained most of the time and then the technology would have been really welcome! As it happened I just used the laptop to process photos in the evening after we got back to the house.

So that’s by quick report on my summer holiday. Unfortunately the rest of my summer break is most likely going to be spent more on programming work than relaxing but that’s my fault for starting too many projects I guess!